Movie Review: Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ is a Titanic Achievement

18 Dec

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 The lights turn down, the 3-D glasses go on, and what follows is one of the most basic and honest reasons to go the cinema; pure delight. James Cameron finally unveils  his Avatar and it is one of the most entertaining and visually accomplished works of his entire career. This is the pulp sci-fi feast fans thought they were getting some ten years ago when they went walking into The Phantom Menace hoping for magic to strike. When it happens, you can hear the thunder and feel the electricity. This is why I love the movies.

  Cameron has been promising a technical revolution and he and his team have delivered it, no doubt. From the nearly flawless motion capture to the brighter, clearer 3-D technology, Avatar is an important evolutionary step in the development of the modern blockbuster.  Tonight, jungle-covered islands floated before my eyes in a sea of white mist, elegant alien pterosaurs winged their way through amber-soaked skies, careening past our theater seats before vanishing into the horizon. An entire race of azure giants lived and fought and died just inches away from my popcorn bucket.

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But no matter how great the special effects or the fancy packaging, Avatar would be lost without a narrative and characters we care about. Cameron’s solution is to give us a protagonist whose introduction to the world of Pandora is similar to ours; Jake Sully is going there as a visitor and he’s along for the ride with a body that technically isn’t his.

The year is 2154 and Sully is a paraplegic Marine whose twin brother was killed, earning him a free pass to an alien world where the current corporate/military regime are chomping at the bit to strip-mine the entire planet. The only thing holding them back are the Na’vi, the indigenous blue-skinned warriors who live there, and a group of crusading scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). With the help of home-grown human/Na’vi hybrids called Avatars, Grace and her team upload their consciousness into alien skins and then fraternize with the locals. Sully’s deceased bro was one of Grace’s best and brightest, but Sully shares his genetics and therefore can operate the spare avatar.

After getting separated from his crew, Jake finds himself ushered into Na’vi training rituals with his guide Neyetiri, a local alien hottie who saved him from being eaten by Pandoran fauna. When trigger happy Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) decides to unload the heavy ammunition, Jake has to question his own allegiances and the moral implications associated with ‘relocating’ an entire culture. A simple and archetypal story—the stranger in a strange land who learns to walk the walk—is transformed into a wonderwork of movie escapism.

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As a story, Avatar is pretty basic stuff. A man is confronted with a culture alien to him and in the process of adapting, considers the value of that culture in the face of his own. It nearly writes itself. The environmentally conscious themes go down easier once Cameron introduces the sci-fi truth behind the Na’vi’s connection with their land; it’s interesting and thought-provoking and it gives them motivation more intrinsic and substantial than the fuel-hungry callousness of the Earthling military. The delight is in the details and there is no shortage of them here; from the smallest whirling protoplasts to the deadliest flying nightmares, each animal inhabitant of Pandora has a purpose, a mythology and an unique physiology. Sully may be a military man but he comes into his own while with the Na’vi. His transformation, as written, is a plausible one.

Visually, the movie is a revelation. This is an experience that has been designed to manufacture sensation, emotion and perception in the same ways that an actual environment would. Cameron uses all kinds of spatial orientations to direct our understanding of the physical laws governing Pandora.  When Neyetiri and Jake go to wrangle the vicious, pterosaur-like Banshees, and she demonstrates how to fly one, I was taken aback by the singular beauty of the sequence. Not how the scene was put together but by the physical details of it; watching the muscles stretching under the skin, the wind blowing against the leathery wings, and the rider joyously guiding the animal up and around the floating islands. I had stopped processing the scene as special effects and had begun to regard it as a natural event, something singularly unique.

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The acting is universally good, and all of the physical actors deliver grounded performances. I liked Lang’s take on the villainous colonel; he makes drinking coffee during genocide a  trait of deep significance. Sam Worthington has an easy energy as Sully and he’s far more charismatic and relaxed here than he was in Terminator: Salvation. Sigourney Weaver is a welcome presence in any movie, and I adored her here and oddly enough found her Na’vi avatar to be the most attractive character in the film.

Regarding those Na’vi, they are amazingly rendered to the point that the uncanny valley effect that would make them stiff-necked, dead-eyed puppets is nowhere to be found. There is a texture to the skin, a sag around the mouth or lips and a flare of the nostrils that make them seem as if they are flesh and blood. I did not know Wes Studi was in the film, but I identified him almost immediately based solely upon his Na’vi likeness. Zoe Saldana as Neyetiri is giving a terrific performance that has been expertly tweaked and defined by the animation team.

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Although Cameron crams his film with the trappings of space opera and the remnants of hard sci-fi technology, he’s still more enamored with the action sensibilities of his scripts than the intellectual ones.  Avatar may be pedestrian on a story level, but in telling that story, it channels all of its resources to deliver something stirring, thrilling and overwhelming in its clarity and energy.

The battles that make up the last third of the film are unlike anything I’ve witnessed in fantasy filmmaking. The comic-book scale of the last stand on Pandora is mythic and melodramatic, but all in proper measure. There’s cheese here for sure, but Cameron has the courage of his kooky convictions so we go with it.

No matter, this is a tremendous work, and one likely to find the audience it deserves.

Check out these other Avatar reviews from around the web:

Roger Ebert’s review HERE

Droid’s review at Werewolves on The Moon HERE

Michael Wilmington’s review HERE

Motion Captured’s review HERE

AV Club’s review HERE

 

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43 Responses to “Movie Review: Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ is a Titanic Achievement”

  1. Droid December 18, 2009 at 5:29 am #

    Superb review. Almost as epic as the film itself. It put mine to shame. I may have to do a serious rewrite for my Top 20. Well done.

  2. Clockworthy December 18, 2009 at 8:06 am #

    I did not expect to read glowing reviews about this movie…nice to know that things can be 3D and STILL be good! Can’t wait to see it!

  3. Mrs. Bartleby December 18, 2009 at 8:09 am #

    Excellent review- I was pleasantly surprised. I couldn’t get over how well facial expressions of the Na’vi were captured either. That was most striking to me. All of the fluorescent colors (and some of the creatures) gave the movie a bit of a “deep sea” on land kind of feel. I also kept thinking about those tacky fluorescent pictures of dolphins and kittens that were popular in the early 90s! =)

  4. koutchboom December 18, 2009 at 10:29 am #

    God I hope this means Woody Allen’s next film will be in 3-D!

    • Bartleby December 18, 2009 at 10:50 am #

      you mean pictures like these?

      RAWK ON!

      • Mrs. Bartleby December 18, 2009 at 12:11 pm #

        HAHA! YESSS!

  5. koutchboom December 18, 2009 at 10:39 am #

    How good was that song at the end as well? NOT GOOD AT ALL I KNOW! Thats still messed up it got nominated for awards while they ignore the greatness that is Friends On The Other Side.

    • Bartleby December 18, 2009 at 10:45 am #

      it sounded like Enya got drunk and remixed My Heart Will Go On…which of course means ‘Oscar Gold!’

      So, Koutch, you saw the movie?

      • koutchboom December 18, 2009 at 11:01 am #

        Naw not yet, tomorrow.

        I saw the other 3-D hit of the yeat last night. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

      • koutchboom December 18, 2009 at 11:01 am #

        Leona was on So You Think? Then you Can Dance! Finally the other night, terrible song.

  6. koutchboom December 18, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    Screw this though, bring on Did You Hear About the Morgans!!!!!!

    • MORBIUS December 19, 2009 at 5:43 pm #

      If you want to know what…Did You Hear About the Morgans…was about, it was about 103 minutes too long!

    • clockworthy December 26, 2009 at 1:22 pm #

      You don’t want to hear about them. Trust me.

  7. koutchboom December 18, 2009 at 11:00 am #

    WHHHHAAAATTT!!! Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel has screened? CAN’T WAIT!

    • MORBIUS December 19, 2009 at 5:39 pm #

      Are you looking forward to GARFIELD: Chapter V, The Hairball Strikes Back?

      • koutchboom December 21, 2009 at 2:47 pm #

        God I hope so!!!

        Do you have any regrets?
        Garfield maybe.

  8. Frank Marmoset December 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!!!

    Nah, fuck it, I can’t be assed to argue about this one. I am old and tired and lazy.

    Most of my reasons for disliking Avatar are personal (I don’t like 3D and I’ve always tuned out of films as soon they become more about CGI than real people), although I’m starting to suspect I got ripped off on the 3D angle. A lot of reviews have mentioned the clarity and brightness of the 3D, but it looked pretty murky to me. It’s possible I saw a badly projected copy of the film, which would explain why no one else in the cinema seemed that into it.

    Even though we are Avatar enemies, I applaud you for the effort you’ve shown in spooging your geek love all over my laptop. Now I have to clean this thing up.

  9. Bartleby December 18, 2009 at 2:00 pm #

    Avatar enemies…aww, that’s no good. Let’s settle this like all blue men should and race our Banshees to the top of the Hallelujah mountains. The winner has to buy the loser a new six-legged cat thing and then our conflict will be cleared.

    Frank, it’s quite possible you did get ripped regarding the projection copy. Even the screening I saw last night–it was free so I wasn’t complaining–was softer and blurrier in the background shots than it should have been. A guy who had already seen it projected better elsewhere confirmed for me that indeed, it was the projector/theater’s issue and not a flaw with the filmmaking.

  10. Cello December 19, 2009 at 10:52 am #

    I can’t say enough good things about this film.

  11. MORBIUS December 19, 2009 at 5:37 pm #

    No real IMAX 3-D near me, saw this in Dolby Digital 3-D and it was most excellent! A visual feast that totally satisfies. Great review, good reading. Why do you suppose Sigourney’s Avatar was always clothed?

  12. ThereWolf December 19, 2009 at 7:42 pm #

    Spot on review, Bart.

    I think the ‘Banshee’ sequence was my own favourite. I forgot I was watching FX, just got swept away. Weaver was the best of the actors who, on the whole, I thought suffered from Green Screen Syndrome – because they’re on a blank set they feel the CG is what’s important to the scene so they hold back on the acting. D’yer know what I mean?

    But, I’m still thinking about Avatar now so that’s a good sign of its effect. Only Moon had stayed in my head this year.

  13. Koutchboom December 19, 2009 at 10:05 pm #

    OK Bart you’ve got the Elephant memory round here…..SOOOO what happened to Joel Moore’s character?

    BTY I fucking hat….LOVED THIS MOVIE! Don’t know if I ever want to see it again, just because I know watching it at home would never be good. I may however check it out in 2D before it leaves the cineplex. Enjoy the snow!

    • Bartleby December 20, 2009 at 10:29 am #

      SPOILERS** Regarding Moore, it turns out that the last girl really wasn’t all in his head, and that he actually had ….Oh, wait, wrong movie. Moore’s Na’vi avatar can be seen at the end herding the remainder of the humans back on their ships. He booked out of the trailer before Lang decided to wreck it.**End SPOILERS**

      • Koutchboom December 20, 2009 at 1:44 pm #

        They never show him leave the trailer. I think it was really badly handled.

  14. joediliberto December 19, 2009 at 11:52 pm #

    This movie is, indeed, a mixture of pulp story-telling and technical achievement. A fun adventure melded with eyeball-melting graphics. I would expect the 3D version to out-gross the 2D — assuming there are enough theaters that can project it in 3D. Can’t imagine myself seeing it in 2D, tho…

    My own review is at my blog… http://wp.me/pFs3T-ot

    • Bartleby December 20, 2009 at 2:41 pm #

      Are you sure? Im pretty sure there’s a quick scene of him, grasping a breathing mask to his face, opening the door and running out. Because it struck me that was the first time we knew that if your avatar was killed, you yourself didn’t die.

      I suppose they may not show the moment he leaves, and I magined it but I dont think so. I know they didn’t show anything beyond that… that’s part of something that probably got left on the cutting room floor–my guess is that you see one of the Na’vi rescuing the human Moore and taking him somewhere safe. He’s there at the end though, so I don’t think it was that big of a deal. Not a huge hole or anything.

  15. ThereWolf December 20, 2009 at 5:13 pm #

    I’m sure he puts on a breathing mask and buggers off outside. Can’t swear to it though.

  16. Droid December 21, 2009 at 5:25 am #

    Moore puts on the mask, grabs a gun and goes back out to fight. Not sure what happened to him after that. Too much going on!

    • Bartleby December 21, 2009 at 7:04 am #

      a small detail and not something I found terribly distracting. Its not like cutting the tidal wave from Abyss or something.

      Maybe you should make a fan video Koutch where you reveal what happened to him–the zany adventures of Moore when he falls out of the trailer.

    • koutchboom December 21, 2009 at 10:16 am #

      Me and my wife are pretty sure you don’t see him run out. You just see him flop out of the MRI machine and grasp for air and grab his arm then cut to the next scene. So during the mech warrior fight we kept waiting for him to jump out. He really was a useless character. Thats what bothers us.

      • Droid December 21, 2009 at 10:26 am #

        I’m certain you see him go back out. I remember him with the mask and the gun. I’m going to watch it again and make sure.

      • Bartleby December 21, 2009 at 10:29 am #

        Yea, when I see it a second time I’ll check the evidence.

        Anyone else care to weigh in on this?

        I just want to get the facts straight before I start crafting James Cameron a personal letter.

        Maybe Joel Moore is on Twitter. I’ll see if I can find him and ask…I tell him Koutchboom (supposed to mean something like getting hit in the groin) asked.

  17. Droid December 21, 2009 at 5:27 am #

    The year is 2154 and Sully is a paraplegic Marine whose twin brother was killed in the war

    I thought he got killed by a mugger. “For the paper in his wallet.” I remember that line because I thought it was odd that in 2154 we would still use paper money.

    • Bartleby December 21, 2009 at 7:02 am #

      right you are! I wrote this on a no-sleep bender, and now that you mention it I did think that was odd. I was probably thinking that in 2154 people would stop dying like Batman’s parents and figured that the war must have got’em, but then he wasn’t a soldier.

      • koutchboom December 21, 2009 at 10:17 am #

        Yeah hahahah nice Batman’s partents. Glad I wasn’t the only one who thought that.

  18. ThereWolf December 21, 2009 at 7:56 pm #

    Poor Joel.

    Same thing happened to Kevin McKidd in ‘Kingdom Of Heaven’. There he was, gone.

  19. Bullitt33 December 31, 2009 at 11:58 am #

    Moore absolutely gets out of the trailer. Later after he grabs his mask they show him continue to fight in the battle in his human form firing his rifle like a mad man. At least I could have sworn he did. This is right before the part when all mother nature comes to the rescue.

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